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See the extensive bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

The Life and Accidental (?) Death of Karen Silkwood
(this essay based heavily on Richard Raske's book)

[1] Karen Gay Silkwood was born in Longview, Texas, in 1946. She grew up in Nederland, Texas, with mother Merle, father Bill, and sisters Rose Mary and Linda. Some of her notable childhood activities included playing the flute, tennis, and volleyball, as well as baby-sitting at the First Baptist Church Nursery. In high school, Karen was an A student and a member of the National Honor Society. One of the most telling events of her early life -- showing both her headstrong ways and love of science -- was the fact that she took chemistry class, even though she was the only girl. Her mother wanted her to take Home Economics instead and protested, even going to the teacher; he told her Karen was performing better than most of the boys, so she let it rest. Karen's grades got her a scholarship from the Business and Professional Women's Club, which she applied toward her education at Lamar College. She studied medical technology, but only for a year.


[2] The summer before she began college, Karen met Bill Meadows, and a casual long-distance relationship ensued. (He was from California.) Bill graduated from high school and got a job working for Mobil Oil in Longview. He and Karen tried unsuccessfully to elope, but they were so young that no one would marry them; instead, they claimed they were married and, eventually, they did have a common-law marriage. It was a rocky marriage that brought Karen three children, Beverly, Michael, and Dawn. Bill spent more money than he made on drinking and his motor bike, driving them to bankruptcy, and he had an affair with Kathy, who worked at the bike shop. When Karen demanded he end the affair, Bill offered her an easy divorce, but she had to give him custody of the children. Karen refused, but one day left unannounced and they were divorced soon afterwards.

[3] When Karen left, she went to Oklahoma City. She got a job as a clerk at a hospital, but before she could begin, she learned that Kerr-McGee was hiring laboratory analysts. To Karen, this sounded like a great place to start her career in a scientific field. Early on, she met Drew Stephens. Drew was in a troubled marriage when he began dating Karen and found himself attracted to her eager scientific mind and warmth toward others. After several months, he moved in with Karen and her friend Janet White. Drew's ex-wife had kept the house, but when she remarried and moved out, he and Karen moved in. One of Drew's hobbies was race-car driving, and he taught Karen all he knew.

[4] Karen first joined the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) simply because it was the worker's only defense against a huge corporation. (At the time, Kerr-McGee was number 120 on the Fortune 500.) Drew was also a big influence in her joining the union. The Local 5-283 went on strike only a few months after she joined, and as Christmas got closer, many dropped off the picket line. Not Karen -- she was one of about twenty union members left when the unsuccessful strike ended. This was the first event that solidified her loyalty to the union.

[5] Meanwhile, Karen's personal life was also in turmoil. Drew was feeling trapped and asked Karen to move out, which she did in the spring of 1973. In September, she attempted suicide with a drug overdose. She moved in with Drew again, but they fought a lot, so she got her own apartment a few months later. They still saw each other casually. In May of 1974, Karen was prescribed methaqualone, also known as Parest or Quaalude, to treat her depression and help her sleep.

[6] Though Karen had not been too involved with the union since the strike, in the spring of 1974 she began to make up for lost time. Kerr-McGee had stepped up production, so workers were working longer shifts and more days per week. They were tired; there were many accidents -- and accidents with a radioactive substance like plutonium needed to be avoided at all costs. Karen was concerned. In August 1974, union elections were held, and Karen became the first woman elected to the union bargaining committee. She was put in charge of health and safety. Jack Tice, another bargaining committee member, wrote to Elwood Swisher, the vice president of OCAW International, about poor working conditions at the plant. Swisher invited them to come to Washington, D.C., to prepare to take their complaint to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). For two months, Karen documented spills and contaminations in a small spiral notebook. Simultaneously, the union was threatened with decertification, and membership numbers were low.

[7] At the end of September, Karen and her two colleagues met Anthony Mazzocchi in Washington. He told the bargaining committee that plutonium was a carcinogen, something no one at Kerr-McGee had ever mentioned; on the contrary, they had signs posted that read, "Radiation is Safe." It was the first time anyone told them that plutonium causes cancer. Before leaving the meeting, Karen told Mazzocchi that fuel-rod quality control documents were being adjusted, something she felt could have potentially serious consequences. Mazzocchi told them not to mention this point to the AEC and appointed Steve Wodka to be Karen's contact as she got documentation of the adjustments.

[8] Some of the thirty-nine problems Karen and her colleagues did talk to the AEC about:


The AEC's function was multifold: it owned source materials for atomic energy and factories that made the materials and had control over these materials. It also worked on research and development of atomic energy and facilities that would perform the research and development duties.

[9] Mazzocchi also suggested that the union arrange for experts to speak about the dangers of plutonium before the decertification vote. If this tactic worked and the union was voted in, then it would be time for contract negotiations. Here was the point Karen's documentation would come in; she would give the story to the New York Times, and Kerr-McGee would really have to negotiate. The other members of the bargaining committee were unaware of this plan.

[10] Karen took her new assignment seriously. She didn't have to look very hard to find grossly under-trained employees, holes in gloves (that workers used to handle plutonium), and Kerr-McGee health physics technicians who played down the effects of contamination. One of her most startling finds was that forty pounds of plutonium was missing from the plant, enough to build several atomic bombs. During this time, the union scientists had their meeting with Kerr-McGee employees and told everyone that plutonium, even in amounts too small to see, is cancerous. After this meeting, the workers voted in favor of the union, 80 to 61. The union was to begin contract negotiations on November 6, and Karen was to have her documents ready for November 13. Under huge amounts of stress, Karen had already lost twenty pounds -- from 115 to 94 -- and had more trouble sleeping. Drew, fearing deteriorating safety conditions, had quit his job at Kerr-McGee and tried to get Karen to do the same. This led to more arguments between them, and they finally had to declare Kerr-McGee, the union, and health and safety off limits as topics of discussion. Karen was scared, though, and made several calls to her mother and sister Rose Mary. She told them she was quitting after she finished what she was doing and asked them to send her job applications for oil companies near them in Texas. As of September, Karen was sharing an apartment with Sherri Ellis, a co-worker, but not a close friend.

[11] On November 5, Karen was reprimanded by John Carver, a lab supervisor, for taking prescription drugs while working without letting him know. Before a 5:30 break that day, Karen monitored herself and was clean. She was gone for fifteen minutes, then worked in the glove boxes until 6:30; she was alone when she monitored herself and was contaminated. Her right sleeve and shoulder of her coveralls were exposed to forty times the AEC permissible contamination. Karen's nasal smear, a test used to determine internal contamination, was high, too. After showering with Clorox and powdered detergent, her contamination readings were acceptable, and she was sent home with a urine and fecal sample kit. A health physics technician, Dennis Ford, changed the gloves that had contaminated Karen, but found no leaks when he filled them with water.

[12] November 6 was the first day of contract negotiations. Karen began the day doing paperwork in the Met Lab, then at 8:50 monitored herself before going to the negotiation meeting. She was "hot," and the contamination could not be washed off. Another shower followed, this time with a potassium-permanganate and sodium-bisulfate paste that rubbed the skin raw, as the purpose was to remove the outer layer of skin. Karen requested another nasal smear, and it came back even higher than the previous day's. It was unclear where the contamination was coming from since she had only worked in the office on that day.

[13] On November 7, Karen reported to work at 7:50 and was found to be extraordinarily contaminated, with readings so high they indicated she was expelling contaminated air from her lungs. It was also apparent that she was not being contaminated at the plant. At 1:30, after another painful shower, Karen went to her apartment with two Kerr-McGee health physics and Wayne Norwood, the health physics director. There were unbelievably high readings in the kitchen, with the highest contamination appearing on a package containing bologna and cheese in the refrigerator. Karen told the AEC that that morning, some of her urine had spilled onto the bathroom floor from the sample container; she used paper towels to clean it up, then flushed them. She removed the bologna from the refrigerator and set it on the closed toilet top so she would remember to make her lunch. But she didn't because she recalled that she had something to eat at work. Norwood suspected Karen had spiked her own urine samples. (There were theories believed by some people at Kerr-McGee that Karen would do this to hurt the company and help the union, and also that she was part of a plutonium smuggling ring.) The plutonium in the sample was an insoluble kind, which meant it could not be passed through urine. Later it was found that Karen did not have access to that particular batch of plutonium.

[14] The evening of November 7, Norwood and his team returned to clean out the apartment of all contamination. A Kerr-McGee lawyer got a statement out of Karen, in which she told her story, ending with, "I have no knowledge of what happened, but I feel the contamination is coming out from my body." She left the scene soon after that and got in touch with Drew, her mother, and Steve Wodka. Norwood's team finished for the night around 8:00, but only removed items with the highest contamination. The rest took another month to remove, and Karen had not let the health physics into her bedroom for more than a preliminary check. She told Drew that she went back to get something out of the bedroom after Norwood left but didn't say what.

[15] On the 8th, Steve Wodka arrived. Karen, Drew, and Steve met with two AEC investigators, and Karen gave an account of her three days of contamination. Both the AEC and the Kerr-McGee consulting physicians advised Karen to go to Los Alamos for a full-body count of her contamination. Mostly for company, Drew and Sherri Ellis went along. Karen had two days of tests, and Dr. George Voelz told her the results were within AEC limits. Her lungs were contaminated at half of the permissible burden, but there was a margin of error around 300%. Drew and Sherri's results showed very insignificant contamination levels. Karen was concerned about her genes, any tissues or maxi pads she used (she kept these in a plastic bag), and human contact. She wouldn't kiss Drew. They returned to Oklahoma on November 12.

[16] Karen called Wodka the night of the 12th to assure him she was ready to meet David Burnham, the New York Times reporter. The morning of the 13th, she attended another unsuccessful bargaining meeting with Kerr-McGee over the contract. She was also questioned by the AEC. At 5:30, she attended a union meeting at the Hub Cafe, where co-worker Wanda Jean Jung saw Karen with a thick manilla envelope. She saw Karen leafing through papers in the folder. After the meeting, Karen told Jung that she was going to meet with Wodka and Burnham about the documents she had in hand. Karen had already told Jung that she was collecting documents about poor quality control in the plant.

[17] A little over seven miles from the Hub Cafe, Karen's car crossed over to the left side of the road at a forty-five degree angle. She traveled in a straight line on the left berm for 240 feet until the car hit a cement culvert wall, then flew head-on into the opposite wall. Karen died instantly.

[18] Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer Rick Fagen determined Karen fell asleep at the wheel and officially recorded her death was an accident. He wrote in his report that Karen fell asleep due to alcohol and Quaaludes in her system, but he did so before the autopsy was performed. A.O. Pipkin was one of a number of private investigators with expertise in accident forensics who concluded Karen's death was not an accident, for many reasons, a few being: 1. the steering wheel was bent in at the two sides, suggesting she had braced herself before impact, 2. there were fresh dents in her rear bumper that were not a result, as OHP argued, of the car hitting the culvert as it was pulled out, 3. the Quaaludes in Karen's system, at least for someone like her who had been abusing them, were not in a significant enough amount to induce sleep, particularly on the way to an important meeting, 4. if Karen had fallen asleep, the car would have drifted off the right side of the road, but, instead, it crossed to the left side, then traveled in a straight line for 240 feet, 5. the driving pattern was consistent with someone with racing knowledge, like Karen. Some believe Karen was killed intentionally, but others think someone only meant to scare her and did not anticipate the culvert. This hypothesis: Karen was followed. The person(s) following her ran into her from behind, then she swerved left to try and get away from them. She rode on the berm and could not get back onto the road because the other car was beside her. She was looking at the car to her right, so she didn't see the culvert ahead and drove right into it. The FBI did not investigate the matter further but stuck by the OHP's report.

[19] Many groups, including the National Organization of Women (NOW) and a House of Representatives Subcommittee, tried to push for a more thorough investigation but came up against brick walls. Karen's father, Bill, sued Kerr-McGee (and others) for her contamination, and the legal team had trouble investigating the matter also. After a long trial, Karen's estate was awarded over $10 million by a jury, but after appeals and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, a final settlement of $1.3 million was reached. This money was split between her father, who handled her estate, and her three children.

Print Resources

"$1.3 Million Accord Reached in Lawsuit by Silkwood's Heirs." New York Times 23 August 1986: 1.
Kerr-McGee settles the Silkwood case on this day for $1.3 million after the $10.5 million award given by the jury is "overturned on appeal." Gives a brief summary of the events of Karen's life and death. Kerr-McGee states that they believe the company would have won in a new trial, but it was best to settle, if only because "the legal process would have cost in excess of the settlement." Bill Silkwood, Karen's father, says at first he asked Kerr-McGee for only $3500 to cover her personal belongings, but he returned their check because it was only for $1500. "They could've settled this a long time ago and for a little amount of money."
"Anniversary of Karen Silkwood's Death Raises Nuclear Safety Issue." Liberation News Service 18 November 1977: 4.
A rally was held on the third anniversary of Karen's death. The article is written pre-trial and reports that some of Karen's allegations have already been proven by former Kerr-McGee managers: production valued over safety, missing plutonium, leaks, and advance notification about AEC inspections. Wanda Jean Jung, who agreed to testify that she saw Karen with documents right before she left to meet the New York Times reporter, has been given warnings against testifying -- "anonymous phone calls" and "ransacked" apartment.
Barringer, Felicity. "Media Talk; Abrupt Departure by Executive Editor of The Oklahoman." New York Times 17 January 2000: C9.
This is mighty interesting. The Daily Oklahoman, in 1999, was declared "The Worst Newspaper in America" by the Columbia Journalism Review for its extreme conservatism. So, they brought in Stan Tiner, "an ex-marine known for reinvigorating the Mobile Register in Alabama," to serve as executive editor and turn things around -- which he did. Then eight months later he is fired; no one will say why. Barringer looks to articles that were published in his short tenure, one of which being the first in "a three part retrospective" on Karen Silkwood. Parts two and three never appeared, and Tiner was gone in less than three weeks.
Broad, William J. "Fact and Legend Clash in Silkwood." New York Times 11 December 1983: 2
Broad attempts to weigh in with many others presenting "the facts" of the case, but he seems to overlook some facts and pull others out of thin air. He agrees that Kerr-McGee was certainly a "hellish place to work," but he dismisses other important claims of the film. He quotes Daniel E. Simpson, a vice president at Westinghouse-Hanford -- "The effect of the failure of a faulty fuel rod is essentially nil. Even a number of failures could never cause criticality"; the horror of faulty fuel rods is the driving force behind the plot of the film. Broad says that there were documents found after Karen's accident -- "but they in no way substantiated Miss Silkwood's charges that the company was doctoring evidence of faulty fuel rods." (This is a statement I've not seen anywhere else.) He also discusses the fresh dents in Karen's bumper, concluding that they were made when the car was pulled out of the culvert; this has been widely disputed by many experts. Finally, Broad talks about the Quaaludes found in Karen's system -- more than what the film states in the end, but, again, he relies on the "official" reports on the case. "In short, the evidence in the case suggests that Miss Silkwood was not a nuclear Joan of Arc but an activist outraged by terrible working conditions who mistook a technician's shortcut for corporate cover-up and eventually became a victim of her own infatuation with drugs. That tale, while not very seductive, at least sticks to the facts." (At least if you haven't done your homework.)
Burnham, David. "Screen Credit: A Reporter Who Said No." New York Times 12 February 1984: 2.1.
There were two main reasons why Burnham denied the request of screenwriter Nora Ephron to use his name in the film. (He was the reporter Karen was to meet the night she died.) He had a bad experience when his name was included (but soon deleted) from the film Serpico; namely, he believed Serpico contained "a good deal of faulty history," and he didn't want to be part of it. Reason #1: "The positive knowledge that I would not and probably should not be able to control the content of a film about Karen Silkwood was thus the major reason why I told Nora Ephron that I did not want my name used." Reason #2: "my involvement in the life of Karen Silkwood was minimal." He then tells exactly what his involvement was, gives some positive comments about the film, and weighs the arguments about what happened to her the night of November 13.
Burnham, David. New York Times 15 May 1976: 13.
"Repr John D. Dingell, chmn of HR Small Business Com's Energy and Environment Subcom, repts alleged 'special relationship' between FBI and Jacque Srouji, formerly employed by Nashville Tennesseean, will be examined in public hearing on May 20 by subcom." Tennesseean editor John Seigenthaler is suspicious of FBI news sources. Srouji testified to Subcommittee that "she had been given considerable access to FBI investigative file of Silkwood death in connection with book she is writing on nuclear power."
Carmody, Deirdre. New York Times 2 October 1977: 32.
The first amendment covers filmmakers, too. Kerr-McGee made an attempt in trial preparations to subpoena Buzz Hirsch, Silkwood producer, and get all of his research findings -- taped interviews, notes, documents, and so on. He challenged them, and now it is on the books that filmmakers, like journalists, have the right to protect their sources.
Caulfield, Deborah. "Ruling Held Timely for 'Silkwood.'" LA Times 12 January 1984: 1.
Caulfield explores whether the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court -- that overturned the finding of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which had overruled the jury award of $10 million+ to the Silkwood estate -- will benefit the newly released film. Early to say, but filmmakers were "ecstatic." Producer Buzz Hirsch: "Our film is incredibly accurate. I know that Kerr-McGee has been trying to influence public opinion about the film to the contrary, but from the beginning we bent over backwards to make a fair and balanced film, and I think we achieved that in spite of articles to the contrary."
Conconi, Chuck. "PERSONALITIES: The Silkwood Awards." Washington Post 13 November 1984: B3.
The first annual Karen Silkwood awards were held on this day, marking 10-year anniversary of Karen's death. They were put on by the Christic Institute and the Government Accountability Project. A total of five awards were given, to four nuclear quality control inspectors and an OCAW International union official.
Davis, (Rev.) William. Letter. New York Times 11 January 1984: A22.
Davis, a co-director of the Christic Institute and board member of the Karen Silkwood Fund, writes a rebuttal to the New York Times review of Silkwood. "You chide the movie for not presenting 'all the facets of the case.' The irony is that a more complete documentary would have proved even more embarrassing for Kerr-McGee. Among the many 'facets' established in the Kerr-McGee trial but omitted in the film were the following." And he names four major problems: Karen couldn't have contaminated herself because she didn't have access to the "particular batch" found in her apartment, "the plant was built in a 'tornado alley,'" and two incidents where Kerr-McGee exposed the PUBLIC to contamination. "A movie that is generally artistic, entertaining and accurate ought not to be relegated to the land of make-believe simply because it exposes aspects of reality that some would rather pretend are untrue."
Dolan, Maura. "Huge Awards by U.S. Juries Very Rarely Get Paid." Ottawa Citizen 27 November 1996: A10.
This article is about high jury awards in general, but it starts with a three paragraph introduction on the Silkwood trial -- interesting because in 1996 it is recent news by no stretch of the imagination. $10.5 million award was whittled down to $1.3 million, and after legal and estate fees, Karen's three children shared only $500,000.
Domrzalski, Dennis. "Lab Stole Silkwood's Body, Dad Says. New Mexico Scientists Say They Had OK to Use Nuclear Worker's Organs." Rocky Mountain News 13 February 1994: 47A.
Bill Silkwood says that scientists joked that Karen's organs -- frozen and in plastic bags -- would set off the metal detectors as they carried them through the airport. "They're a ghoulish outfit. No one ever gave them permission. They just cleaned out her body of all organs -- lungs, right down to the female organs...They don't seem to have any feelings." Los Alamos spokesman said they had permission from "autopsy authorities" and the coroner was to notify the family about the organs being used. It is unclear why this issue arises in 1994.
Harpur, Tom. "D.C. Institute Girds for Next Big Moral Battle." Toronto Star 2 February 1992: B7.
Being a Canadian publication, perhaps the Toronto Star has the freedom to say things like: "The incriminating documents were stolen" and the "conspiracy to silence" Karen "even had involved the placing of radioactive plutonium in the food in her refrigerator." These statements are made without hesitation and are unlike what is seen in American newspapers. Harpur discusses a meeting he had with Daniel Sheehan, one of the Silkwood lawyers and a founder of the Christic Institute.
"High Court Clears Award in Karen Silkwood Case." New York Times 12 January 1984: A24.
This is a discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court 5 to 4 vote that overturned the Federal appeals court's decision that "the award, made by a jury under Oklahoma law, was in effect a state 'regulation' of a federally licensed nuclear facility." "Emotion [was] removed from the case" because the Court did not deal with the facts of the case, only the legal question of "whether the Federal Government's regulatory authority over nuclear safety preempts an award of punitive damages, based on state negligence law, against a licensed nuclear facility." The Justices agreed that "punitive damages are a form of regulation." Majority Justice White said "there was 'ample evidence' that Congress, while preempting other forms of regulation by the states in the nuclear safety area, did not intend to make punitive damages unavailable to people who suffer radiation injuries in a nuclear plant." On the other side, minority Justice Powell called the $10 million award "a disquieting example of how the jury system can function as an unauthorized regulatory medium."
"Karen Silkwood Case." Washington Post 7 April 1979: A2.
Former health and safety manager at Kerr-McGee, Wayne Norwood, testified on this day that it was possible Karen heard rumors about her urine samples being contaminated. Karen may have been checking on this rumor when she asked Norwood about "high urine samples" before he had finished testing them.
Karen Silkwood Fund. Action Alert. Washington, D.C. June 1983.
Detailed account of how the Silkwood case got to the U.S. Supreme Court and what it means if the appellate court decision is upheld. "Silkwood Movie To Star Meryl Streep" contains excerpts of an interview with Streep, in which she says "[Karen] was a real tough cookie to reconcile with Joan of Arc. But the thing about Silkwood was, she caused a lot of trouble -- and she was right." There is also a piece on Howard Kohn being sued for libel by Jacque Srouji, who was criticized in his book Who Killed Karen Silkwood? Srouji's role in the Silkwood matter is explained.
Keller, David. "Filmmaker Faces Jail in Silkwood Case." In These Times 18 May 1977: 4.
This tells the facts of the beginning of a First Amendment rights struggle for Silkwood producer Buzz Hirsch. Judge Luther Eubanks ordered him to turn over his research materials to Kerr-McGee. Hirsch refused, saying he is entitled to protect his sources, like a journalist is. He could be held in jail until he turns over the documents or until a higher court rules in his favor.
"Kerr-McGee Condemns Film." Los Angeles Times. Printed in Chicago Sun-Times 14 December 1983: 77.
Reaction of K-M to film, calling it "inaccurate." "Kerr-McGee is a fine company that cares deeply about its employees." A short but dense article.
Kohn, Howard. "The Nuclear Industry's Terrible Power and How It Silenced Karen Silkwood." Reporting: The Rolling Stone Style. Ed. Paul Scanlon. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977. 105-39.
Kohn mostly focuses on the Silkwood story but brings to the surface other nuclear industry blemishes. The AEC and Kerr-McGee are put under the microscope, and his "short version" of Karen's life and death is given. Also told is some of the aftermath of the people of Crescent and other individuals, not just the legal proceedings.
Kohn, Howard. Who Killed Karen Silkwood? New York: Summit Books, 1981.
And this would be the long version. One of two major books on Silkwood (see Rashke below), this source is a must have. Kohn writes in a rock-and-roll style with old-school private investigator feel which was criticized by many reviewers, but he gets the story out. The book starts at the end, then works through the investigation and ends up in 1981 at a Supporters of Silkwood rally. It has pictures, too.
Mann, Jim. "$10-Million Silkwood Award Reinstated." LA Times 12 January 1984: 1.
This article discusses the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the Silkwood estate and gives a summary of the events of Karen's contamination and death. Why jury decided what they did, why U.S. appeals court decided what they did. Kerr-McGee can challenge amount, "but the justices flatly rejected Kerr-McGee's contention that it cannot be subjected to any punitive damages at all."
Mayo, Anna. "Geiger Counter: Tangled Web." Village Voice 21 March 1977: 29.
More dirt on Jacque Srouji, who Mayo says worked with the FBI "infiltrating and ratting on civil rights and antiwar groups, and...environmentalists."  Dan Sheehan, part of the Silkwood legal team, requested FBI documents that Srouji told a Congressional Subcommittee she had in her possession.  She tearfully refused Sheehan and testified February 26, "[denying] that she had read or copied the FBI Silkwood documents."
Meireis, Kent. "Working-Class Hero." Denver Post 2D ed. 30 August 1994: C1.
A mural of Karen was dedicated at the OCAW's convention twenty years after her death.
Nelson, Sarah. "A Special Report on the New Trial that May Reveal Who Killed Karen Silkwood." Karen Silkwood Fund. undated, sometime 1980-1983.
Nelson calls this "the second Silkwood case," one that "is even more important than the first," and in which "Karen's family is charging that she and her co-union organizers were victims of a criminal anti-civil rights conspiracy by Kerr-McGee officers and aided by four FBI operatives."  This case deals with the right to free speech and "bringing to justice" anyone involved with conspiratory acts against Karen.  Another request for donations.
Nelson, Sarah. "Karen Silkwood Special Report." Karen Silkwood Fund. undated.
This comes after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury award of $10 million+ and is to inform Silkwood advocates about what happened and all the negative consequences of this decision. It reiterates all of the dirty little secrets Karen uncovered in her investigation at the plant. The letter emphasizes that a jury decision MUST matter and be upheld. There is also an appeal for donations to the continuing legal battle.
"Nuclear Safety: The Cost of Karen Silkwood." Economist 26 May 1979: 57.
This article gives a pro-business slant to the Silkwood case, calling the jury decision "bad news" and "yet another important victory for the growing nationwide anti-nuclear movement." The author mentions that this ruling will have a major impact on the nuclear industry's "insurability," and gives a naively-edited summary of the facts surrounding Karen's death.
"Other Deaths." St. Petersburg Times Early Tampa ed. 17 June 1995: 5A.
At 45, Drew Stephens dies in a plane crash "while practicing aerobatic loops in preparation for an upcoming competition."
"Plutonium Lost at the Plant, Ex-Aide Says." Washington Post 13 March 1979: A2.
Testimony at the Silkwood trial supports her claim that there was forty pounds of plutonium missing from the Kerr-McGee plant. James V. Smith, a former plant supervisor, said that the workers spent "many thousands of hours" attempting to flush liquid plutonium from pipes; Kerr-McGee contends that is where the forty pounds are located; Smith says there is no way.
Rashke, Richard. Karen Silkwood: Union Sister. Karen Silkwood Fund. Hyattsville, MD: Quixote Center, 1978.
Distributed by the Karen Silkwood Fund, this pamphlet was Rashke's initial look into the Silkwood case. It is the short version of what happened, beginning with Karen on strike from Kerr-McGee in the winter of 1972 and ending in the middle of the Silkwood trial.
Rashke, Richard. The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case. 2nd ed. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000.
Probably the most important book on Silkwood, it is comprised of "The Killing," "The Investigation," "The Courts," and, new in the 2000 edition, "The Legacy." Rashke does an amazing job of presenting all the facts of the events of Karen's life and death; though it may seem slanted, really Rashke's report just exposes embarrassing and hard-to-believe truths. The story is told in extreme detail, which is confusing at times (so many names to keep track of) but, in the end, further solidifies Rashke's credibility.
Reed, Christopher. "Obituary: Tony Mazzocchi." Guardian. London ed. 9 November 2002: 22.
Tony Mazzocchi was a high-ranking official with the OCAW international union. A large portion of his obituary is devoted to his involvement with the Silkwood case, which he was "best known" for and almost defined who he was.
Seidemann, Joel J. "The Silkwood Mystery: The Estate of Karen Silkwood V. Kerr-McGee Corporation." In the Interest of Justice: Great Opening and Closing Arguments of the Last 100 Years. New York: HarperCollins, 2004, 236-57.
Chapter 12 begins with a three-page description of Karen Silkwood's background, her concern about plutonium, and the events that occurred several days and up to her death on November 13, 1974. Gerry Spence's closing arguments are then broken down into eleven sections. In "The Mud Springs" section, for instance, Spence uses the old saying of "getting drowned in mud springs" as an analogy for getting the jurors confused with all the scientific jargon. And in "Attacks on the Defense for Blaming the Victim," Spence goes over the slander directed at Silkwood since her death. The Postcript details the initial verdict, court of appeals, and Spence's various analogies. "Spence's brilliant summation and equally brilliant portrayal of Silkwood," Seidemann writes, "displayed his excellent command of various trial techniques. He made a powerful emotional case, moving the jurors to admire and revere Silkwood while despising the greedy corporation who cared little about whether its low-paid employees cam down with cancer" (255).
"Silkwood Epilogue: Fuel-Rod Debate Lingers On." New York Times Late City Final ed. 7 December 1985: 8.
Officials in Hanford contend that the Kerr-McGee fuel rods are performing "safely and well." "A spokesman for Kerr-McGee, Rick Pereles, said that in light of the reports on the rods' performance, 'we hope that people will draw their own conclusions as to the merits of the other aspects of the controversy.'" The Department of Energy bought "several hundred rods at a reduced price because it was 'determined that the defects were minor.'" Other scientists skeptical about fuel rod performance reports. This "breeder" or Fast Flux Test Facility is extremely dangerous, more so than a regular plant. A representative for the Silkwood estate affirmed that these findings would not impact the ongoing legal battle between the estate and Kerr-McGee.
"Silkwood Radiation Trial." Washington Post 15 March 1979: A5.
Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, a Georgia Tech University professor and radiation expert, testified that Kerr-McGee "had a 'callous, almost cruel, hardened disregard' for employee safety" and "failed to keep nuclear materials safe from terrorists."
Silkwood, Bill. Letter to "Friend of Karen's." Undated, clipping file, American Radicalism Collection, Michigan State University.
This letter plays on the heartstrings of the reader, going through major themes of the case in a personal way. Mr. Silkwood expresses shock, horror, and sadness at the decision of the appellate court. He seeks support in the next phase of the legal case.
Smith, Ken. "Whistleblower." Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans. New York: Blast, 1998. 109-21
Smith gives yet another fast-moving summary of the events of Silkwood's life and death. One piece of information (or speculation) is that the forty pounds of plutonium missing from the plant were allegedly stolen by the "CIA, which at the time was diverting nuclear material from several American plants to 'friendly' nations as a way of evading anti-nuclear proliferation agreements. (The forty pounds from the Cimarron River plant reportedly went to Israel.)"
Srouji, Jacque. Critical Mass: Nuclear Power, the Alternative to Energy Famine. Nashville: Aurora Publishing Inc., 1977.
Srouji includes what some have called a slanderous chapter on Silkwood in this pro-nuclear book. She was allegedly given FBI documents on Silkwood to write the chapter and claims that it was only after writing the book that she become aware that her publisher was with the CIA.
Starr, Mark, with Nancy Cooper. "Silkwood: No Easy Answers." Newsweek 26 December 1983: 23.
The article discusses the "predictable" reactions (to Silkwood) of antinuclear activists and Kerr-McGee. Starr and Cooper look favorably on the film, as they say it looks favorably on Karen -- "minimalizing the erratic personal behavior that included considerable pill popping," for instance.
"Testimony Begins in Silkwood Damage Suit." Chemical Week 21 March 1979: 24.
Very early in the Silkwood trial, the arguments of both sides are outlined. Also summarized is some testimony given: magic marker was used to touch up flaws in x-rays, not welds, safety at the plant "among the best" and "one of the worst," Kerr-McGee safety manual "inadequate," advance notice of AEC inspections, and mishandling of plutonium.
Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files. New York: Random House, 1999.
Though it contains only a few pages directly concerning Karen, this book is a good resource for a larger study on plutonium. It discusses how Karen's organs and bone ended up in a Los Alamos laboratory. Mostly it is about the Manhattan Project, one of many human experiments conducted during the Cold War, in which 18 human subjects were unknowingly injected with plutonium.
Wilson, David. "Kerr-McGee Image Ads Spotlight Workers." Adweek 5 August 1985.
New ads, the third set in the "People Like You Who Care" series. These ads for Kerr-McGee each "spotlight" one employee engaged in a volunteer activity, such as being a blood donor, Boy Scout leader, or March of Dimes walkathon participant. The "sole purpose is to 'show the good citizenship' of Kerr-McGee employees" and is "not intended to address the Silkwood controversy." The campaign began in 1983, the year Silkwood was released.
"Writer Uses FBI Files." Berkeley Barb 21 May 1976: 2.
Jacque Srouji, an FBI informant, was given confidential files to write a book; these same files were denied to a Congressional investigative subcommittee. Srouji's former co-workers "report she occasionally urged others to commit illegal protest acts; they suggest Srouji was an 'agent provocateur' for the FBI."

See Also

Baker, Bobby. Wheeling and Dealing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Brannon, Ken. "Was Jacque Srouji Really a Spy for the FBI?" Nashville! November 1976.

Brannon, Ken. "Why Was Srouji Fired?" Nashville! October 1976.

Childs, Marquis W. "The Big Boom from Oklahoma." Saturday Evening Post 9 April 1949.

Curtis, Gregory. "This Man Loves Car Wrecks More Than Anyone in the World." Texas Monthly May 1975.

Donner, Frank. The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.

Ezell, John S. Innovations in Energy: The Story of Kerr-McGee. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1979.

Hannam, Joyce. The Death of Karen Silkwood. UK: Oxford Bookworms Library, January 2004.

Hauan, Martin. He Buys Organs for Churches, Pianos for Bawdy Houses. Oklahoma City: Midwest Political Publishers, 1976.

Innes, Brian. Major Unsolved Crimes. Broomall: Mason Crest Publishers, 2003.

International Directory of Company Histories. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988.

Lief, Michael S., with H. Mitchell Caldwell and Ben Bycel. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: Greatest Closing Arguments in Modern Law. London: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Morgan, Ann Hodges. Robert S. Kerr: The Senate Years. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1977.

Philips, B.J. "The Case of Karen Silkwood." Ms April 1975.

Seligman, Daniel. "Senator Bob Kerr: The Oklahoma Gusher." Fortune March 1959.

Thimmesch, Nick. "Karen Silkwood Without Tears." Saturday Evening Post December 1979, cont'd January 1980.

Tucker, Kitty, and Eleanor Walters. "Plutonium and the Workplace." Environmental Policy Institute. March 1979.

Tucker, William. "No One Killed Karen Silkwood." Penthouse December 1983.

"Uranium: Boom with a Bang." Time 30 July 1956.

Zaniello, Tom. Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff. Ithaca: ILR Press, 2003.

Video/Audio Resources

Another Karen Silkwood. 60 Minutes. CBS. 8 March 1992.
This short segment tells the story of Linda Porter, a whistleblower who had concerns about worker safety. On the job, she and co-workers were exposed to fumes and dust from paint containing asbestos and lead. When Porter went to her employers about it, they were not only unconcerned but threatened her and gave her "nasty jobs" to do. At the time of the broadcast, she was receiving disability benefits as a result of a suspicious accident in which a scaffold fell on her. The Silkwood title and point of reference for this account shows her wide cultural significance.
Contaminated: The Karen Silkwood Story. History's Mysteries. The History Channel. 1996.
Certainly Karen's story is one of history's mysteries. This show begins with an introduction to Karen, a risk-taker with a strong will to do what she sees as right. Often one of the hardest things to figure out is why Karen, sometimes seeming careless and irresponsible, turns out to be a union activist and whistleblower. Author of The Killing of Karen Silkwood, Richard Rashke, gives his take on it: "Now that she left her family, and is on her own, as an adult, in her 20's -- free for the first time in her life -- she becomes a different person. But what she carried from her previous life were the very things that drove her to become a whistleblower." This film gets at many of the issues surrounding Karen's death, but of course, it remains a mystery in the end.
Dark Circle. Dir. Judy Irving, Chris Beaver, Ruth Landy. Independent Documentary Group. 1982
This is an invaluable resource for showing the horrors of nuclear plants. Though it has an ever-present anti-nuke stance, you can't argue with the frightening true stories the film tells. It opens with Dr. John Gofman, a spokesman for the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, telling us that six tenths of a millionth of a gram of plutonium is the permissible body burden. (Can't we just say NO amount is permissible, then?) We see Rocky Flats, a community horribly broken by the effects of radiation -- livestock are deformed, children have died, there is a high occurrence of cancer; one man has even had a partial lobotomy. In Nagasaki a man is interviewed who was burned so badly when the bomb was dropped that he was bedridden for almost two years. We see actual video of the incredibly disturbing "pig test," in which pigs are put in (somewhat) protective garments and are confined to a small box raised off the ground. Then radiation is let loose on them. The results of the test? Unlike humans, these pigs somehow can survive the blast with 3rd degree burns over 80% of their bodies. Mostly this is a film that shows the effects that nuclear plants have on communities, by highlighting individuals who have been deeply affected. It also tells what some members of these communities have done to combat the nuclear industry, and how some attempts have been thwarted by government agencies, big business, and even some (as the filmmakers portray them) ignorant members of the communities.
Hidden Voices. Dir. Judy Irving and Chris Beaver. Independent Documentary Group. 1984.
This is a short compilation of quotes from interviews of Wanda Jean Jung (a friend and co-worker of Karen's), a Kerr-McGee supervisor, Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer Fagan, Drew Stephens, and even Karen herself. Karen's words, taken from a taped phone call with Steve Wodka, stress that there are young, uneducated "boys" handling plutonium who "don't understand what radiation is." Another interesting and possibly incriminating series of quotes include statements from Fagan, Sebring (owner of the garage where Karen's wrecked car was towed), and Stephens. Fagan: saw papers with Kerr-McGee logo blowing around on the ground at accident site, picked them up, and put them inside the car. Sebring: let AEC and Kerr-McGee officials into the garage late on November 13th. Stephens: got to see Karen's car for the first time the morning of the 14th, and no documents were found inside.
Karen Silkwood: A Life on the Line. Biography. A & E. 1996.
This program gives an accurate picture of Karen's life. Bill Meadows, her ex-husband, is interviewed, and we get some more insight into their relationship and the circumstances of her leaving him and their children. Karen's relationship with Drew Stephens and the union are discussed. Buzz Hirsch, one of the makers of Silkwood, says Karen was "like a foot soldier working for the union" and "behind enemy lines." In two months, this work takes its toll, as Karen loses twenty pounds, becomes dependent on Quaaludes, and begins looking to find a job near her family in Texas. But first she wants to finish the undercover job for the union, and she is dead before she can follow through. Foul play? Who knows? Certainly not the Oklahoma Highway Patrol supervisor, shown in an interview totally unaware of important accident evidence that was overlooked by one of his officers. David Burnham, the New York Times reporter Karen was to meet, is also interviewed, saying he believes whoever caused Karen's accident was only trying to scare her, not kill her.
The Perils of Whistleblowing. 20th Century with Mike Wallace. The History Channel. 1996.
This special report chronicles the consequences of whistleblowing for several individuals, Karen Silkwood included. Jeffrey Wigand was a scientist who spoke out against Brown & Williamson, the tobacco company he worked for, when he discovered cigarettes were engineered to be highly addictive. A. Earnest Fitzgerald was a Pentagon employee who exposed many government organizations' blatant disregard for cost effectiveness; for example, thousands of dollars were spent on a single hammer. An engineer who designed parts for Challenger knew that there would be complications as a result of below freezing temperatures, but NASA didn't take this warning seriously and the tragic accident happened. The consequences? Whistleblowers are reassigned, usually to lower and dirtier jobs, they are vilified by their employers, and even co-workers turn against them for rocking the boat. Wallace: "One legal scholar who has followed such cases suggests that the whistleblower's credo should be 'No good deed shall go unpunished.'"

The Plutonium Incident. Dir. Richard Michaels. Starring Janet Margolin, Bo Hopkins, Joseph Campanella, Powers Boothe, Bibi Besch, and Nicholas Pryor. 1980.

Online Resources

Astonisher.com http://www.astonisher.com/archives/silkwood.html
This is an article titled "The Karen Silkwood Story: An Unexpected Twist at the End." Written in 1985, it says "the fuel rods are ok," meaning the fuel rods that Karen believed were faulty.
Building Bridges: Your Community and Labor Report http://wbai-labor.igc.org/silkwood.html
This is a 58-minute-long radio special report on Karen Silkwood that includes interviews with Steve Wodka, Kitty Tucker, Tony Mazzocchi, and Meryl Streep.
Environmental Advocates New York http://www.eany.org/pressreleases/2000/111300.htm
Twenty-six years after Karen's death, this release calls for whistleblower protection.
Government Accountability Project http://www.whistleblower.org
This organization is government-affiliated and aims to help whistleblowers and those still on the fence, thinking about blowing the whistle. Tons of information.
The Kerr-McGee Homepage http://www.kerr-mcgee.com [Archived]
There is a "History" link on this site but no mention of Silkwood. "Safety and Environment" is particularly interesting.
Letters on Kohn's Who Killed Karen Silkwood? The New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/articles/6616
An exchange of letters by David Burnham, Howard Kohn, and John M. Crewdson regarding Kohn's book, Who Killed Karen Silkwood?
Life Magazine http://www.life.com/Life/boomers/50boomers04.html#40
Life names Karen 40th of The 50 Most Influential Baby Boomers.
"Limits of a Whistle-Blower Culture." The Christian Science Monitor http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1021/p17s01-wmcr.html
An article called "Limits of a Whistle-Blower Culture" addresses whether whistleblower stigma is changing or not. Are whistleblowers heroes, or do we still not want them working for us? Plus links to other articles at bottom of page.
The National Whistleblower Center http://www.whistleblowers.org
This is an impressive non-profit group that works to make sure that when someone blows the whistle, it is heard.
The Nuclear Express http://homepages.iol.ie/~pcassidy/carnsore/express.html [Archived]
This is a song written to protest the building of a nuclear power plant in Ireland in 1978. Karen Silkwood is part of the song.
OCAW http://www.webshells.com/ocaw/
Information about the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union.
The PACE Homepage http://www.paceunion.org/ocaw_history.htm [Archived]
The OCAW evolved into the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers International (PACE).
PBS Online http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interact/silkwood.html
A good historical run-down of the facts surrounding the Silkwood story.
The Rise of the Antinuclear Power Movement http://www.eco.utexas.edu/Homepages/Faculty/Cleaver/357Lgarzachap3.pdf
A great resource to get a sense of the time, and Karen is included.
The Skeptic Tank http://www.skepticfiles.org/socialis/christic.htm
Answers the question -- what is the Christic Institute? For our purposes, it was an organization helpful in the Silkwood investigation and trial.
State of Ohio Supreme Court http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/Communications_office/Justice_Pfeifer/2001/jp022801.asp [Archived]
Justice Pfeifer responds to talk of drilling for oil on protected land, and how the events of the Silkwood case affect current energy debates.
"Women as Heroines of Their Own Lives." Fast Company http://pf.fastcompany.com/magazine/70/akreamer.html
In this May 2003 article titled "Women as Heroines of Their Own Lives," the author exchanges e-mail with Nora Ephron, one of the Silkwood screenwriters.